Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Mitov: Western Balkans Should be Treated as EU Members

Adelina Marini, May 17, 2016

Enlargement needs a change and a serious one at that. This opinion united in Zagreb the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Croatia. The Bulgarian Minister Daniel Mitov was far bolder in his vision, while his Croatian counterpart was more concentrated on sending messages to certain neighbouring states. The two met in the capital of Croatia in the beginning of May, but spoke about enlargement separately. Miro Kovač spoke at a round table, at which it was discussed what the new EU foreign and security policy should look like, while Daniel Mitov spoke to a wide audience in the EU’s house in Zagreb during his two-day visit, and later clarified some of his positions in an interview for  euinside

Croatia and Bulgaria want more Europe and more Union.

Enlargement is still important, regardless of the fact that the European project might have lost its attractiveness to some, said Miro Kovač in the end of April. He did not mention him explicitly, but he meant Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić, who recently announced that the European Union no longer had the same attractiveness as before. The Croatian top diplomat expressed hope that most Europeans wish for more Europe in the Union and more union in Europe. “Croatia is among those who aspire to more not less Europe”, he said. His young Bulgarian colleague Daniel Mitov also admits that the European project might have lost a bit of its attractiveness, but named “cliché” the talk about a coming disintegration. He thinks that the EU is faced with several problems simultaneously – the flip side of globalisation, which brings with it more integration, new security measures, renewed political and social instability.

In addition, there come the effects of incomplete integration in the area of the common currency, or in the area of freedom, security, and justice. Daniel Mitov believes that similar to the crisis in the eurozone, which walked out of it stronger, the refugee crisis will accelerate integration in other areas as well. To an audience more interested in what was happening in Macedonia, Serbia, and the future of enlargement, the Bulgarian foreign minister spoke of more political integration. Later in an interview for euinside he explained that the EU had lived very comfortably for several decades. “Liberal democracies had decided that it is somehow natural for the liberal democratic agenda to prevail and even force authoritarian regimes to bend and gradually start liberalising their economies and their social architecture. The problem, however, is that authoritarianisms reciprocated, and since the EU and democracies in general stopped making history – if you stop making history, someone else starts to make it in your stead – and at the moment the EU has a problem exactly with this”.

According to Daniel Mitov, the inability of 28 democracies to answer the challenges is the main reason for the feeling of doubt and the not-so-large attractiveness and strength. To do this more integration is necessary. “And we need to start with things like Frontex, Europol, common asylum policies, change of the Dublin Regulation” he lists the areas in which there are specific proposals on, and on some of them work has already began. “The EU can function much better only if it is much more politically integrated”, concluded the minister. 

Zagreb and Sofia together against/for Serbia

The Bulgarian foreign minister came to Zagreb in a very difficult moment in time for Croatia – when the country, besides being in a heavy internal political crisis, is also completely isolated in the Council of Ministers due to its unilateral decision to block the opening of chapter 23 of the negotiations with Serbia, which would have been one more diamond in the crown of Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić, following his victory in another snap election. Croatia believes that Serbia has not yet earned the opening of the key chapter 23, which covers the judiciary and fundamental rights. Definitive to Zagreb’s decision was Belgrade’s refusal to send to The Hague Vojislav Šešelj so that he can hear the sentence of the tribunal against him for war crimes and genocide. Šešelj was later acquitted in absentia. Zagreb decided to bundle this issue with two more conditions – minority rights in Serbia and the controversial law for universal jurisdiction, which allows Serbia the persecution of war crimes, committed outside its territory as well.

Just as Croatia’s isolation was threatening to bring bad consequences, Daniel Mitov lent a surprising helping shoulder by stating exactly from Zagreb, during the press conference with his Croatian host, that Croatian demands are fully justified and that Bulgaria also has expectations of Serbia. Later in an interview for this website Mr Mitov was not too sure if his words should be interpreted exactly as unconditional support. He did, however, underline that the opening of each chapter also opens issues that need clarification – whether with the neighbours or the entire EU. “It is quite legitimate that questions are placed forward, which are of a sort of problematic nature, or delicate nature, so that they get solved and a framework for long-term relations is created, which will not allow ever again for such issues to be brought up. And we all know how delicate the situation is after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and following the wars that were waged for years”, said the minister. 

He pleaded that these issues are dealt with calmly, with no emotions, and in sync with all good practises, norms and values, on which the EU is founded. At the same time, he stressed once more that Bulgaria also had unsolved issues with Serbia. “There are legal provisions in Serbian legislation, which need to be implemented towards the Bulgarian national minority and we have been bringing up these issues all the time. This is why, I feel that within the negotiation process Bulgaria needs to put forward this issue too, as clearly as it has been articulated and brought up so far, but in the end of the day it needs to be regulated and solved, so that we never again need to place such type of relationships at the table”

Daniel Mitov called “a technicality” the question whether the issue with Serbia should be resolved by not opening chapter 23, or within the negotiations on this chapter. He said he sees no problem in solving these issues within the negotiation process itself. “It must be clear, however, that a concrete commitment to resolving these issues must be made. And I am certain that the Serbian side and our colleagues in Belgrade are aware of this and are clearly able and have the will to make every effort necessary, so that these issues are regulated. They are not so difficult to regulate. You just need to have the political will to do it”

It is not the first time that Bulgaria has rushed to help Croatia, which it has no open issues with. Sofia and Zagreb joined forces (once again vs. Serbia) for the recognition of Kosovo. At that time they were joined by Budapest. The three states recognised the new post-Yugoslav state in a joint declaration. History remembers other similar occasions when Bulgaria and Croatia joined forces against Serbia. Both, however, state that to them the accession of Serbia and the Western Balkans countries in general is a key priority. So far, Bulgaria is not going to veto the opening of any particular chapter of the negotiations with Serbia, but it is quite possible to do so if it has to. Besides Bulgaria, support for Croatia is already coming from other EU states, which is going to put an end to Croatian isolation on this issue. This will surely not be liked by the large players on the European scene, but it would be a mistake if Croatian conditions are viewed as a simply bilateral issue, for it is about a much wider context and even a civilisation orientation. 

Enlargement for all, few for enlargement

Regarding enlargement in general, Croatia and Bulgaria think it should go on. They differ, however, in their accounts of it. Recently the Croatian top diplomat said that no one in the EU is excited about enlargement anymore, except for 1-2 Central European states. In one of his speeches lately he said that many countries from “what Rumsfeld used to call 'old Europe” had no real interest in enlargement. To Croatia, however, this is a matter of national interest and it should be for Europe as well. So, Croatia will fight for enlargement and against enlargement fatigue, vowed the minister. Enlargement is what turned Europe into a continent of peace, democracy, respect for the rule of law and human rights and it is exactly why the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize, said in a lecture for diplomats Miro Kovač in the end of April. Enlargement is a transforming force and this is best seen in countries of South Eastern Europe. 

Enlargement is important to the security of the entire Union as well. “Our own stability and security depend on that of our immediate neighbours. Investment into their resilience through enlargement is an investment into our own resilience”, said Minister Kovač. Several days later, his Bulgarian colleague announced that South Eastern Europe urgently needed convergence and integration. "We must find new political impetus and new dynamic, even a new approach in our efforts to complete the process of European integration. We know the price of indecision and inaction in SEE. Those countries must not remain in a state of limbo, in a state of uncertainty and weakening linkages in Europe. We owe it to ourselves and the future generations”, said Daniel Mitov during his lecture in Zagreb. 

He feels the focus should be moved onto the development of interconnectivity between the economies and communities of the region. It is about transport, infrastructure, and energy connectivity. Besides, on several subjects, countries of the Western Balkans should already be treated as EU members. This means participating in decision-making that will affect them directly. The enlargement process should not be constricted to just opening and closing of chapters. Attention must be paid to the legacy of the past and foundations for the future must be laid, said Daniel Mitov, showing more collateral support for Croatian efforts towards Serbia. 

Answering a question about the situation in Macedonia, Daniel Mitov painted a worrying picture. According to him, what is happening in Macedonia has the potential of spilling over the entire region. “I'm afraid that we're witnessing a situation in which we need to start thinking out of the box and the standard way of political leaders 'let’s sit down, let’s talk, lets agree something' is already somehow exhausted. This way of dealing in the conventional ways and approaches are already exhausted. I think we need here a different approach”, he said, but admitted to not heaving a ready recipe. One of his proposals is for the EU to be more engaged, being careful, however, not to be seen as an intruder. “We have two dangers here. One of them is the possible instability of a larger scale in the Western Balkans. We don’t need that. We need to be aware of the fact that any type of instability will be used by exactly countries and forces who do not belong to the EU space but are seeking to use any type of instability in the region to create more problematic situations. I think you know which country, which factor I'm referring to”, warned the Bulgarian foreign minister, having in mind Russia. 

Talking to euinside he disagreed with his Croatian colleague that no one was interested in enlargement anymore. “Yes, it is true that enlargement is not in the highest-priority part of the EU agenda at the moment, but by no means has it dropped out of the agenda. Unfortunately, at the moment, we have to respond to challenges which are very intense and require an immediate and rapid response, so somehow enlargement has been left a bit in the background of the agenda”. He also committed to continuously raising the question about enlargement at the European level. The EU continues to be attractive, he added and gave an example of public sentiments in Macedonia, where support is still huge. "The trouble is that there also has to be political will present in order to implement certain types of reforms, which will lead to transformation, because attractiveness is one thing, but there needs to be political will in order for the transformation to happen. Bulgaria has passed through that and we know how painful it was. Croatia too. So, this is also a large amount of work that needs to be done”, he concluded.       

Rule of law not just in words

In his speeches Miro Kovač often speaks of how important rule of law is. He feels it is exactly the rule of law which lies at the core of European identity. “If our priority is making democracy and human rights the centre piece of our foreign policy, then we need to lead by example and refocus our action”, stated the Croatian top diplomat. Neither of the two ministers said it out loud, but the feeling was flowing in the air that the EU has quite more work on this issue internally, which could set real obstacles to the preaching of these values to candidate countries. On May 24, the EU General Affairs Council will have its regular (second in turn) dialogue on the state of rule of law in the EU. The extent of frankness among ministers will show whether they all feel it is in the foundation of the “European identity”, as Miro Kovač believes. 

Although Croatia with its new government is beginning to remind of a Polish scenario of undermining the rule of law, the situation in Bulgaria is the most complicated, for the country has for the past ten years been under a mechanism on exactly that area. This mechanism turned out to be a real obstacle to the country’s Schengen membership. Daniel Mitov paid special attention on this issue during his lecture in Zagreb, by saying that there is an “unacceptable way of linking” of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism and Schengen membership. At the moment, Bulgaria is trying to convince its EU partners that such a connection must not exist. Croatia is yet to receive its first assessment of its readiness for Schengen membership. Last year, Hungary and Slovenia questioned its readiness because of the way it dealt with refugees. 

*You can see the full interview with Minister Daniel Mitov in the attached video file (in Bulgarian)  

Translated by Stanimir Stoev